The surprise packet

The composition of the next government could be in Moshe Kahlon’s hands

Moshe Kahlon (photo credit: REUTERS)
Moshe Kahlon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
EVER SINCE the emergence of the Democratic Movement for Change which won 15 seats in 1977, Israeli elections have more often than not produced a surprise packet flavor of the month.
Disappointed in the old, voters have tended to look for new, authentic and more prom - ising voices. In 1992, it was Rafael Eitan’s Tsomet -- the out-of-the-blue eight Tsomet Knesset Members were dubbed “Raful and the seven dwarfs”; in 2003 Tommy Lapid’s Shinui astounded the pundits with 15 seats on an unabashedly anti-Haredi ticket; in 2006, the nondescript and unheralded Pensioners’ party took seven seats with an eleventh hour protest vote; and last time round it was Yair Lapid’s newbie, “new politics” Yesh Atid with a mind-boggling 19.
This time the novelty attraction is likely to be Moshe Kahlon, a breakaway Likudnik, whose brand new Koolanu (All of Us) party, before even launching a campaign or announcing a Knesset list, has consistently been polling double figures.
Kahlon, 54, one of the more popular politicians among the Likud rank and file, came to national prominence in 2010-11, when as communications minister he smashed the powerful cellphone cartel in Israel, dramatically reducing consumer costs. His rising star, however, led to friction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who saw him as a potential leadership threat. As a result, Kahlon took a time-out from politics, eventually leaving the Likud and announcing in April 2014 that he would run on his own.
Kahlon has a number of important electoral advantages. One of seven children in a family of immigrants from Libya, he is expected to take empathetic blue-collar Sephardi voters from the Likud and the fractured ultra-Orthodox Shas parties. His argument that he will be able to do something about the rising cost of living, especially soaring housing prices, is also resonating among disaffected Yesh Atid supporters. He is especially popular among the young, where the bon ton is that unlike other politicians, Kahlon, the cellphone drag - on slayer, has shown he can deliver.
Kahlon, Lapid and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu are all focusing on the huge reservoir of votes in the center and center-right of the political spectrum. They are also eying possible pre- and post-election cooperation. Kahlon and Liberman have already signed a surplus vote agreement, providing for one of their two parties to benefit from the other’s surplus votes.
More importantly, Lapid is pressing Kahlon to run on a joint ticket. If they do, it could be the big event of the current campaign. A string of recent polls shows that a combined Yesh Atid-Koolanu list would emerge as the largest single faction in the Knesset, with around 22 to 24 seats. In that case, Kahlon, the poor boy who grew up in a deprived immigrant neighborhood and started working at 14, could theoretically wind up in the prime minister’s office.
Kahlon, so far, is not keen. It is not clear who would lead a combined list, he or Lapid; nor is it clear whether Kahlon feels he is ready for that amount of success. On the other hand, he fears that teaming up with Lapid, the outgoing finance minister widely seen as yesterday’s failed great hope, could compromise his prospects. Moreover, if he runs alone, he could keep his coalition options open. Lapid, after a spate of damning criticisms of Netanyahu’s modus operandi in government, would probably not agree to serve under him again. Kahlon has stated publicly that he would. “I haven’t been working for two years just to sit on the sidelines,” he says.
Nevertheless, if polls continue to predict an overall election victory for a combined ticket, Kahlon will be hard-pressed not to take up Lapid’s standing invitation. He has until January 29, the date by which all finalized party lists must be submitted, to decide.
In this election, competing parties are trying to make electoral gains by redefining Israeli political space. In past elections, the Likud made great strides by defining itself as the “national camp,” and implying that its rivals to the left were lacking in patriotic zeal.
To counter this, the center-left is now calling itself the “Zionist camp,” implying that those on the right are irresponsible extremists, endangering the Zionist project. In the space between left and right, Kahlon, Lapid and Liberman define themselves as the “pragmatic center,” implying impeccable patriotic credentials with a readiness to make reasonable concessions for peace.
Kahlon insists that his pragmatism is more in line with Likud tradition than the current party hardline. In other words, that his party is more genuinely Likud than the Likud itself.
“Real Likud knows how to make peace and to give up territory, while remaining conservative and responsible,” he told a young audience in a Tel Aviv pub in early December. “When the time came to make peace with Egypt, the Likud made peace. When it was necessary to make concessions, it made them,” he insisted.
The trouble with this proclaimed modera - tion is that when Kahlon was in the Likud, he was one of its more hawkish members. He was part of the rebel group that opposed then Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005; was a staunch advocate of building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; favored annexing the West Bank if the Palestinians turned to the UN; flatly opposed a two-state solution and suggested that the party Central Committee he chaired would never approve one.
Kahlon’s strong suit though is his perceived socioeconomic sensitivity and capacity to make a difference. He says Koolanu’s main focus will be on basic social needs and that as such it is also more truly traditional Likud than today’s party under Netanyahu. His main message is that if the right people are voted in, a way can be found to lower housing and other living costs.
He also claims to be ready to take on the powerful tycoons and fight for a more equitable distribution of national wealth. “Those who are laughing now must be made to realize that a day will come when they will stop laughing,” he told the Tel Aviv pub audience.
“Don’t be cynical,” he urged. “You must have faith that change for the better is possible.”
Indeed, the need for hope, especially among the young, will be another major campaign message.
Yet despite his image as a latter-day Robin Hood, ready to take from the rich to help the poor, Kahlon’s voting record on social issues has been far from perfect. For example, he voted against raising the minimum wage, against raising national insurance payments to the elderly, and against raising the ceiling pensioners can earn without forfeiting national insurance support.
Like Lapid and Liberman, in his party Kahlon will be the main and only mover and shaker. He will be its leader and candidate for prime minister in this and the next election; he will appoint party officers; he will appoint the party’s Knesset candidates; and he will decide whether or not to join a future government coalition. According to the party’s 10-point platform, its main goal will be reducing the cost of living, especially housing, food and banking costs, by encouraging competition -- the way Kahlon did with the mobile phones.
Kahlon’s main backers come from his home patch, the Haifa-Netanya axis, where he reportedly has the support of Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, Netanya Mayor Miriam Feir - berg, and former Hadera mayor Haim Avitan; and Jerusalem, where his brother, Kobi, is deputy mayor with close ties to supermarket king Rami Levy, a potential financial backer.
Ironically, there is unconfirmed speculation that other financial backers could include some of the very tycoons Kahlon claims to oppose, such as gas, oil and real estate barons Yitzhak Tshuva and Kobi Maimon. The evidence for this seems to be largely circumstantial, based on “landsmanschaft” and personal connections. For example, Tripoli-born Tshuva is a major donor to the Netanya Academic College, where Kahlon, without relevant academic qualifications, currently heads the Center for Reform and Leadership; Maimon, also a member of the close-knit Libyan-Jewish community, is a close friend.
So far Kahlon has not announced any members of his Knesset list. Names being bandied about include Feirberg, Orna Angel, a former adviser to ex-prime minister Ehud Barak and CEO of the Tel Aviv Port recreation area, Alona Barkat, hi-tech entrepreneur and social activist who owns Hapoel Beersheba football club, former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Whether or not they run together or in separate lists, the self-proclaimed pragmatic centrists Kahlon, Liberman and Lapid will probably decide who the next prime minister is – Netanyahu, Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog or one of their number. All three share a deep antipathy toward Netanyahu; Kahlon and Liberman, though, tend to the right, and in a center-left/right stalemate could go either way depending on exactly what is on offer.
Kahlon’s is something of an Israeli Horatio Alger story. One of seven children in an immigrant family from Tripoli, he grew up in Givat Olga Gimmel, initially a transit camp on the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv for new immigrants from Libya, Morocco and Romania. He started working at 14 to help the family get by. As he tells it, he remembers sipping tea early one morning before going out to work and reassuring his worried father, a building laborer, that he would go on to the army, university and make something of himself. “People need to have hope,” he says. “I only got as far as I did because I never lost hope.”
He joined the IDF in 1978 and served as a professional soldier in the Ordnance Corps until 1986. His last assignment was chief training instructor at a home front base in the north. Later, as a mature student, he majored in political science at Haifa University, earned a law degree at the Netanya Academic College and qualified as an auto assessor at the Haifa Technion.
After demobilization, Kahlon worked for about 15 years as the CEO of companies importing and marketing auto spare parts. In parallel he served for a while as marketing director of a local Haifa newspaper and later as public defender in the Haifa Labor Court.
All the while he also dabbled in politics. He got his first big break in the late 1980s, campaigning for Likud candidate Rami Dotan’s election as mayor of Haifa. Dotan lost to Labor incumbent Aryeh Gurel, but during the campaign Kahlon got know then up-and- coming Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau, who became his political patron.
When Landau was appointed public security minister in 2001, he made Kahlon his bureau chief.
In 2003, Kahlon was elected to the Knes - set in his own right. But he joined Landau in opposing then prime minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Just before implementa - tion of the plan in August 2005, Sharon reportedly offered him a ministerial portfolio, Immigration and Absorption, if he switched sides. He refused.
After the withdrawal, Sharon, wearied of the hard-liners’ constant sniping, broke away from the Likud to form Kadima. Kahlon stayed with the hard-liners. The story of how he had refused Sharon did not go unrewarded. In the 2006 Likud Knesset primary, he finished first. In the ensuing election, Likud won only 12 Knesset seats, its worst showing ever, and spent the next three years in oppo - sition.
Kahlon, however, flourished. He became chairman of the Likud’s influential Central Committee and chaired the Knesset Eco - nomics Committee, where he sponsored legislation to simplify and reduce bank fees and to provide electricity discounts for the elderly poor. He also initiated a law for preserving the heritage of Libyan Jewry.
When the Likud returned to power in 2009 with 27 seats, Kahlon became communications minister, the job in which he made his name with the cellphone reform. After Labor pulled out of the coalition in January 2011, Kahlon took on a second ministry, replacing Herzog as welfare and social services minister. He was at the height of his powers, holding two ministries in tandem, the stand-out exception in a government widely panned over rising costs of living. So much so that during the social protest of the sum - mer of 2011, Netanyahu famously urged his ministers to take a leaf out his book and “be Kahlons.”
For some, though, including Netanyahu, Kahlon seemed to be getting too big for his boots. Netanyahu started interfering in the Communications Ministry, deliberately cutting Kahlon down to size. Kahlon further irked his envious colleagues when in July 2012 he voted against an austerity budget with higher taxes and sharp cuts in government spending. After that he felt Netanyahu and others ganging up on him and feared that in the upcoming Likud Knesset primary in November 2012, he might find himself on several “hit lists” – lists circulated among the party faithful urging them not to vote Kahlon. In October, he announced that he was taking a break from politics and would not be running.
The last straw for Kahlon came with the Israel Lands Authority fiasco. On January 20, 2013, 36 hours before polling in the ensu - ing general election, Netanyahu announced he would appoint Kahlon head of the ILA with a special brief to lower housing prices. It proved, however, nothing more than a cynical election gimmick. Five months later, after Kahlon had made himself available, Netanyahu announced he would not be able to honor the commitment, because of the coalition agreement with Yesh Atid, despite the fact that it specifically provides for Kahlon’s appointment by name.
The upcoming election provides Kahlon with a chance for revenge. He could return as the kingmaker or even possibly the king him - self. The big question is, if it comes down to a choice between Netanyahu and a candidate from the center or center-left, will Kahlon be swayed by his Likud roots and right-wing leanings or his deep antipathy for Netanyahu. The composition of the next government, with all that entails for Israel’s future, could be in his hands.